We all have our images of serial killers, and they usually look like the bogeymen we pictured as children: dead-eyed, macabre men with a lip curl and not a whit of mercy in their tiny, blackened hearts.
But what are the odds that such purveyors of evil could look like sweet and doting grandmothers, or that their story could be one of the funniest stage productions in recent memory? The chances are good if you buy a ticket to Arsenic and Old Lace, now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival. Yes, the old warhorse has been pulled out once again, and it is almost unfailingly hilarious, thanks to a talented cast, inspired direction from Drew Barr, and a run crew made up entirely of corpses.
First performed in 1941, Arsenic has become a theatrical staple, the kitchen equivalent of Gold Medal flour. It has everything, including the wacky Brewster family and Keystone Cops-style gendarmes. But what it needs is a collection of players gifted with laser-sharp comic timing and a director who knows how to make mayhem funny. This production has both in spades.
Most of us know about the strange Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, who have taken it upon themselves to usher their golden-age room renters off this mortal coil via arsenic-laced glasses of elderberry wine. Hey, they just want to save the old guys from a sad life of isolation and depression. Actors Lynn Allison and Laura Perrotta, as Abby and Martha respectively, have a special chemistry apart from their diabolical concoctions. Sweetly supportive of each other, they wield their index fingers like punji sticks in the direction of anyone who dares interrupt their activities.
Nephew Mortimer becomes aware of his aunties' evil hobby when he finds a corpse in the well of a window seat. He promptly becomes unglued. And let's face it, no local actor delaminates with quite the gusto of Andrew May. While some might wish for a few more underplayed deliveries, May triggers gales of laughter with his contorted double takes. He is matched at times by Kathryn Cherasaro, who plays his fiancée Elaine with energetic abandon, particularly in a manic chase around a divan.
Weaving his way through the proceedings is the Brewsters' lunatic brother, who imagines himself Theodore Roosevelt, braying "Charge!" at the slightest provocation and dutifully burying bodies in the basement, which he has been told is the Panama Canal under construction. David Anthony Smith is a beaming, bounteous Teddy, providing an innocent counterpoint to the sisters' skulduggery.
And as for the villain of the piece, Dougfred Miller is the scary, sociopathic older brother Jonathan Brewster, his greasy black hair emblazoned with a skunklike stripe of white. His murderous competition with the lovely sisters is one of many continuing jokes in this darkly amusing romp.